Recently, a member of the Web Team was reading a mailing list thread started by a guy by the name of Marvin who wanted feedback on his Star Trek fanboy website. In it’s first iteration, the site read like an A-Z of visual design no-no’s (bad colour contrast, text on busy images, lurid font colours, etc), and needless to say he received some fairly fierce criticism.
Here’s the rub. It transpires that Marvin is blind, and for him the semantic structure of his site, which was actually pretty good, was far more important than the visual imperatives by which fully-sighted users judge the quality of a website. The story highlights an important aspect of web development that is often overlooked by content editors; by employing semantic HTML and not mixing presentation (font sizes and colours, layout, etc) with content, the meaning of our content can be preserved across all types of users agents, including those employed by disabled users to surf the web. To quote from the BBC’s Standards and Guidelines on semantic markup:
Semantic mark-up is HTML that describes the content, rather than the manner in which the content is presented. It allows the meaning to be delivered to users regardless of the browser they use, so that content can be provided to the widest possible audience.
And it’s not just about accessibility; creating content with semantic markup is also great for Search Engine Optimisation, leads to a faster surfing experience, and enhances the usability of web sites across the wider (non-disabled) audience.
For these reasons, IT Training have been working hard with Web Team and Marketing and Communications to produce a new online training module on how to write for the web for all our CMS users. The online resource, which should be ready for use within the next couple of months, will cover semantic markup in addition to other relevant topics ( legal concerns, basic Information Architecture, how users scan web pages, etc) that should help our Contributors and Editors create effective copy for the University website. We think it should make a difference.